Power and Its Abuses
One theme of The Hunger Games concerns the interrelationship of authority and autonomy. A nation that claims to protect the peace and liberty of its citizens allows and even encourages each citizen’s autonomy (within reason). In contrast, authoritarian nations limit individual autonomy through various means, generally to the benefit of those in power. But the authority of those in power over citizens must be established and maintained, often at great cost and effort. In part, The Hunger Games is an examination of the techniques used by the Capitol not only to deprive citizens of autonomy but to justify doing so. In this, the novel is a critique of power and its abuses.
Exactly who holds power in Panem is not clear. Certainly, the despotic President Snow is in charge; below him seem to be the Gamemakers, but an unseen hierarchy must also exist to do the work of the Capitol. Hints of this structure emerge later in the trilogy: mayors of districts, Peacekeepers, and others do Snow’s bidding, but it is sometimes unclear whether they are willing participants or are rewarded or coerced.
Whatever the precise nature of the power structure, its primary purpose is to perpetuate itself, which requires it to limit citizens’ autonomy to various extents. The Capitol citizens, who seem to live quite well (though later books in the trilogy reveal more about their conditions), are nevertheless under the Capitol’s control. The Gamemakers have perfected the strategy of distracting and misleading them through the spectacle of the Games. By presenting the tributes as exotic and by crafting stories of their courage and loyalty to their districts, the Gamemakers transform children, some as young as twelve, into heroic, semi-mythical figures—all but one tragic. In a sense, the Games dehumanize the tributes so that Capitol citizens no longer see them as children like their own and thus overlook the atrocities involved in terrorizing children into murdering one another brutally (assuming the hazards of the arena don’t kill them first).
A few, however, resist the spectacle. Not much is revealed in the first novel of the trilogy about dissenters within the Capitol, but Katniss does learn about the Avox—people who rebelled in some way, perhaps merely by fleeing the capitol. When propaganda fails, torture, disfigurement, and compulsory servitude are put into action. The Capitol has ways to enforce its authority and limit the autonomy of even its privileged citizens.
The citizens of the districts have much less autonomy than Capitol citizens, of course, and endure additional injuries of overwork, poverty, the threat of starvation and punishment, and the yearly terror of the reaping and the Games. To maintain their grip on the districts, Snow and the Gamemakers employ a repertoire of abusive tactics that demoralize and dehumanize the citizens in their own eyes and in the eyes of devotees of the Games.
For example, the Capitol relentlessly pushes a narrative of criminality. The districts, according to this propaganda, deserve the Games because their ancestors rose up against the Capitol, leading to war and death for many. Their own criminal tendencies are, the story argues, kept in check only by lists of rules and punishments and the intimidation of the Games, which easily can be rigged to destroy, in a painful and humiliating way, adisobedient district’s tributes. The Games themselves force thetributes to become schemers, traitors, and murderers, should they live long enough to kill.
Also, as mentioned above, the Capitol transforms the tributes, their families, and their close friends (more on the roles of friends and family is revealed in the second novel) into characters on a glorified television show. In the same way that real-world readers can enjoy (with some horror, perhaps) the plight of the tributes in the arena and the pain of other characters because they are fictional characters, Capitol viewers are able to detach from the humanity of the victims and delight in the spectacle of their suffering. Translated by the Gamemakers and presented dramatically, the torment is not quite real, the people not wholly human, and so the Games go on.
The Gamemakers use a subtler technique when they suggest, through language and game events, that the tributes are less than human. The language of the arena in particular brings out this purposeful bias in the phrase “Career packs.” These temporary alliances have been part of the Games for decades (and, incidentally, promote a criminal view of the allied tributes, since viewers know that the pack will devour itself treacherously over time). Katniss refers to the pack that hunts her as “just like a pack of wild dogs.” In the arena, each tribute is game to be hunted and slaughtered; each tribute is reduced to living like an animal, scrounging to stay alive, hiding in trees and caves, living an animalistic experience. And in The Hunger Games, the worst comes when the Gamemakers produce “muttations”that are some kind of beast-human hybrid. Each combines the traits of one of the 21 dead tributes with beastly traits, figuratively transforming children into beastly monsters, right before viewers’ eyes. Each has, Katniss notes, “an eerily human quality,” and soon she recognizes in one Glimmer’s green eyes and blonde hair. Each mutt wears a jeweled collar inlaid with its district number. To Katniss’s horror, even her precious Rue is there, “the smallest mutt, with dark glossy fur, huge brown eyes . . . . Teeth bared in hatred.” These mutations are a physical expression of the dehumanizing strategy that leads viewers to see the tributes as more animal than human—not as children like their own.
The destruction of property, of autonomy, of physical health, and even of the self is the goal of the Capitol’s abuses of power, with the final end its own perpetuation. As The Hunger Games ends, readers are left with a hint of a threat to that power in the form of Katniss holding up a handful of berries; the rest of the trilogy will tell the end of the story.
Knowing Friend, Foe, and Self
Because the plot of The Hunger Games is related by a first-person narrator, Katniss Everdeen, readers are most acutely aware of her character development. Being in Katniss’s head, so to speak, readers share her confusion, anxiety, occasional hope, and frequent confusion. Much of Katniss’s character development, and many of the challenges she faces, hinge on her ability or failure to understand herself and those around her.
In Joseph Campbell’s formulation of the hero’s quest (or monomyth) in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a vital task of the hero is to learn to recognize friends and foes, allies and adversaries. The hero who can do this is on her way toward the greater goal of self-understanding. The nature of the Games, with their requirement of a single victor, and Katniss’s own stunted ability to trust, which arises out of her childhood experiences, ratchet up the difficulty for her of knowing who her allies are.
This is true in the Seam, for instance, where Katniss’s fractured relationship with her mother—a bond that should inspire trust and confidence—has forced her to take on roles unusual for a girl her age and undermined her confidence not only in her mother but in adults in general. The closest thing Katniss has to a trusted friend is Gale, and though they are close and he clearly loves her, she holds herself back from utterly trusting him as well. When he proposes escape, not only does she refuse to give the “preposterous” idea a hearing, but she becomes irritated at Gale’s willingness to entertain his dream. She certainly doesn’t want to imagine a life with him and assures herself that he “won’t have any trouble finding a wife.” Gale is her hunting partner, and she draws the line there, just as she draws so many lines around herself that her mother can’t reach her, building a wall “to protect myself from needing her.” During their farewells, she yells in anger and fear at her mother—a parting she later regrets.Peeta, too, though she hardly knows him before they are reaped, is an ally from whom she distances herself. After the bread incident, she will not meet his eyes at school. Katniss hates to owe anyone anything, but allies are bound by what do for each other and owe each other. No wonder she has difficulty treating even those who are clearly on her side as friends.
Thrust into the company of Effie, Peeta, and Haymitch, Katniss continues to be at a loss to grasp that they might become allies. Effie is hated, as the Capitol liaison, and certainly has her faults. She’s vain, disgusted by District 12’s manners, and angling for a promotion. Yet Effie possesses information that can keep Katniss and Peeta alive, and it’s in her interest for one of them to win. Faults aside, she is an ally. Drunken Haymitch, too, though at first he participates reluctantly, is capable of helping Peeta and Katniss prepare for their ordeal. He has already identified Katniss as worth his interest because she has “spunk,” and he is pleased to learn that, this year, he finally has “a pair of fighters.” Haymitch disgusts Katniss, and she is too naïve about the ordeal and aftermath of the Games to understand his weaknesses. In addition, as mentor to both her and Peeta, his loyalties are uncertain. Forced by circumstance, however, Katniss tentatively accepts his help, following his instructions not to resist her stylist’s instructions. This seemingly minor step is in fact a leap of faith for the mistrustful protagonist.
Other unlikely allies present themselves: Cinna, whose sincere nature and fashion brilliance win Katniss over; the prep team, who fall utterly in love with their charge, in their childlike way; and the cold Atala all play important roles in preparing her for the arena. Readers also see Katniss waver in relation to Peeta during the weeks before the Games. As she comes to know him better, she sees the many little ways in which he covers for her own weaknesses and slips (as when he invents the fib about the Avox resembling Delly from District 12). Yet her fears that he and Haymitch are plotting against her keep her in a state of hesitation. It’s hard to blame Katniss; years of Capitol propaganda have embedded in her a fearfulness. Yet as they sit together on the roof before the Games, Katniss softens toward Peeta.
Her experience in the arena is a long slog of trying to figure out friend and foe. Logically, all 24 tributes are each other’s enemies; pragmatically, all 24 are pitted against the arena as well. The alliances that form—in particular the short-lived Career pack, the bond between Rue and Katniss, and the fictional romance that connects Katniss and Peeta to each other and to the Capitol audience—all shape Katniss’s developing understanding of whom to trust and when to withdraw that trust. Her friendship with Rue, possible because Rue reminds her so much of her beloved Prim, is especially important to her development. Rue is sweet and young, birdlike in her delicate build, and clearly enamored of Katniss. In no way is she a threat. From the point at which Rue makes Katniss aware of the tracker jacker nest in the tree above her, they are silent allies. In a short time, however, they become much more—Rue seems to be the first person, other than Prim, to whom Katniss can be open and trusting. Rue’s death refocuses Katniss on what matters in the arena: defying the Capitol, playing the Games, as Peeta wants to do, on her own terms. For Rue’s sake, Katniss gathers her strength to go on. This alliance has repercussions, too: When Thresh catches up with Katniss, he spares her because she was Rue’s ally. But in the twisted environment of the arena, both know that this arrangement is temporary. Thresh saves Katniss from Clove, but the next time they meet, they will be enemies again.
Katniss’s struggle to know friend from foe, and to know what she herself holds most dear, is at the heart of her painful relationship with Peeta in particular. The part she is forced to play, which seems so real to Peeta, is more than an ally, more than a friend. She must act the lover. This deception is difficult for Katniss because it forces her to confront her terrible fears, to realize how much, if the districts were free, she would want to love and be loved. Whether with Gale or Peeta or someone else, she could have a home, children, meaningful work. But for years she has worked to drive this vision of the future away; to be forced to recognize how much she wants this future causes her to both like and hate Peeta and to both admire Haymitch’s strategy while at the same time resenting him for forcing her to “love” her enemy. Her protective walls are in danger. The longer she plays the role, the more she knows that it is the part she wants so much to play for real: “it’s not about the sponsors. It’s not about what will happen back home. . . . It’s him. I do not want to lose the boy with the bread.”
When Katniss’s ploy with the berries forces the Gamemakers to honor the rule change and allow both two victors, readers might think that Katniss, having discovered what a fine young man Peeta is, how deeply he loves her, and how she feels stirrings of love for him, will transcend her mistrustful past. Now, surely, she knows whom she loves, who loves and will fight for her, and who the real enemy is. On the train back to District 12, she grows increasingly anxious and realizes that she has been lying—to Peeta and to Gale (and, readers might add, to herself): “I’ve been getting away with it up to this point because of the Games. But there will be no Games to hide behind back home.” Haymitch, who helped to engineer the deception, accidentally reveals it to Peeta, who responds by withdrawing from Katniss—but true to his nature, without recrimination or undue harshness. Katniss’s response to the terrible ties that now bind her is to protest that Peeta is “not being fair” and that the whole situation is unfair. And it is. It’s unfair to ask a girl whose capacity to know where she stands with those around her, and what she can dare to want or hope for, has been stunted by the terrorism of the Capitol.
And yet Katniss grows out of her self-centeredness and into a more empathetic young woman because of the Games. As witness to the deaths of the children whom the Capitol has branded her enemies, Katniss feels flashes of pity and compassion, which readers see in particular when she dispatches the dying Cato, her most formidable opponent. None of these tributes, she and readers realize, should be enemies—an idea more fully developed in Catching Fire, but for which Katniss’s experiences are now preparing her. Forced to accept allies on their own terms, weaknesses and all, and to see herself as a flawed but valued friend as well, Katniss’s understanding of herself and her relationships to others is undergoing tectonic changes—slow but inexorable. Readers can continue to follow them—and in fact will see them develop into painful paroxysms—as the trilogy progresses.